Saturday, 21 February 2015

You are what you eat

I love food. I think about eating a lot. I try to be conscious of what is in my food and regularly read the labels to contemplate sodium and fat levels, but I get bamboozled by mysterious ingredients. My main concern, as a vegetarian, is that what I eat contains no meat. So I have always considered myself a fairly conscientious eater.

My aunt (who is vegan) encouraged me to read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) and I have just finished reading this fascinating book.  It has made me look at food in a whole new way. In fact, just this morning, I was at my local farmer's market checking out organic products and contemplating my food choices.

So what is the omnivore's dilemma? Pollan describes it as follows: "It boils down to this: As creatures who can eat many different things, how do we know what's good to eat and what's not?" (p.60) Exactly! How do we know what we are consuming?

The Australian government has recently released a new front of package Health Star Rating system which is designed to help consumers select foods that are better for us. The stars tell is the energy, saturated fat, sugars, sodium and iron content in the food peer 100g allowing us to compare foods as we buy them. I think this is great and it will go a long way towards helping people choose healthier options.

But Pollan takes this a step further and asks us to consider the whole food chain - from farm to table. He does so by telling the story of four meals.

First, he begins with the industrial food chain by taking us to a large corn plantation where corn is mass produced. I had no idea just how much corn is in everything we eat in various forms. "If you count all the corn we eat, directly and indirectly the average American eats a ton of corn every year. We don't recognise it as corn, though, because it's been turned into something else." (p 49)

He then takes us to an industrial organic lettuce plantation, where organic food is mass produced for grocery store chains. I was surprised about some aspects of this type of organic farming, including the allowable pesticides and the fossil fuel usage.

Pollan then moves on to a local organic farm and spends a week with the family, participating in all their activities. This was perhaps my favourite section of the book, as the family lovingly cared for their animals allowing them to live and die with dignity. Here Pollan raises and interesting point about how much we are willing to pay for high quality local food when he points out people grumbling about paying an extra dollar for farm fresh eggs. "Nowadays many Americans are even willing to pay for water - something we can get for free from any tap. So why are we unwilling to pay more for better food."(p123)

The final section sees Pollan trying to cook a meal that he has hunted and gathered himself. This section I probably enjoyed least as the idea of hunting for meat was off-putting (although I do know the delicious sweet taste of fresh chanterelles, having once had them picked fresh in Scotland).

Overall I really enjoyed this book and it has got me thinking more about what I eat, where it came from and how I can make better choices.